Teaching My Baby To Read

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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Kids Discover Magazine

How sweet is this? Bruce’s new issue of “Kids Discover” magazine came yesterday, and it is all about the Middle Ages! What a great compliment to Story of the World Volume 2, which we are continuing to listen to.

In case you are interested in ordering the back issue of this particular issue on the Middle Ages, it is Volume 21, Issue 10, October 2011.

A K-12 Online Charter School Teacher Dishes!


(This is a guest post from Jo, one of my best friends and a K-12 Online Charter School Teacher.  Jo spent many years teaching in a traditional public high school before becoming an online teacher.  She teaches classes in math and science, and is the stay-at-home mother of two. )

Guest Post from Jo:

Virtual schools, or online schools, are becoming more and more common.  I’ve worked at a few virtual high schools over the last several years and have seen how the industry is developing.  I’ve worked for both private high schools where students from around the world could take one or more classes, and for public high schools where all the students were enrolled full time at no cost to them.  Online education definitely has its pros and cons but I think it’s a great option for students to have.


  • Great for students who are unable to make it to a traditional school daily. There are many reasons a student might not be able or willing to attend a “brick and mortar” school.  A star athlete may train during the day.  A teen mom may need to be home with her baby.  A student who is ill and often in and out of the hospital, or one who is caring for a family member, can still complete his or her schoolwork, possibly uninterrupted.  A family who travels often can continue to travel throughout the school year.  A home-schooled student whose parent doesn’t feel comfortable teaching an advanced subject like calculus can get support through this system.  A student who doesn’t feel safe at their local school can attend a school online from home.  If a family doesn’t believe the local school is rigorous enough or doesn’t like the policies in the district, their children can attend a virtual school.  A student might work during the day and then complete their school work during the evening.  I’ve even had a student who just loved horses so much that she spent the day at the stable and completed her work in the afternoon.
  • More class options.  Courses are offered that wouldn’t be available at a typical school because of class enrollment.  For example, a language like Latin or Chinese might not be offered if a traditional school has three students in it, but an online school may be able to run the course anyway.  Also, students aren’t limited by class scheduling.  If AP Chemistry and AP European History are offered at the same period in a typical school, a student would have to choose which course to take.  This isn’t an issue in an online school and the student could easily take both.  This also avoids any unintentional tracking issues that happen in schools where a student may want to switch to a more advanced course but can’t due to scheduling.
  • Students can work at their own pace at a time of day that is best for them.  Most alert at midnight?  Need a nap after lunch?  No problem.  Quick at picking up Spanish but need to spend extra time in Geometry to get it?  That’s ok.  Students can spend less time in easier subjects and put more time into more challenging ones, at any time of day.  In addition, most lectures and class discussions are recorded so those can be re-watched and reviewed later.  Students can ask/answer questions in forums and easily go back to that discussion if necessary, even if it’s not during typical school hours.
  •  More personal attention.  This might be counterintuitive to think that students who never even see their teacher would get personal attention, but it turns out that many schools are geared to personally communicate with students individually through frequent emails, phone calls, and live class sessions.  Some find it harder to interact with people in this manner, but other students are much more comfortable shooting an email off to a teacher rather than raising their hand to ask a “stupid” question in class.
  • Teaching is different.  I love it so I put this as a pro.  I like being able to immediately reorganize students into groups for collaborative work, quickly poll the entire class for an answer to a question to check understanding, or read a student’s questions in real time while I’m in the middle of a lecture where a question aloud might be disruptive.  It has its challenges, like not being able to see if the students look confused or have completely tuned out, but I just do what I can to keep them interacting.  I think it’s great.  I mean, can you imagine being able to hit mute on an entire class?  🙂



  • It’s easier to ignore.    A student who isn’t focused on school can also ignore a computer.  Students who are very personally motivated or have a lot of support will do well.  Other students however, enroll in online school because they view a traditional school as “too hard” or it was “too much work to get to class.”  While some of these students may be successful, it’s been my experience that the computer is easier to ignore than needing to be at school at a certain time of day.  With this in mind, schools are developing strict attendance policies where phone calls home or emails to parents begin on the 2nd missed class day or when a predefined amount of log in time wasn’t reached.
  • It can be harder to get help.  While teachers are usually available through a variety of methods, it’s not the same as just walking into a classroom and knowing the teacher will be there.   It can also be difficult to explain some things over a computer or phone.  Some teachers offer defined office hours in a virtual classroom that has interactive board and video capabilities, but it’s not the same as a physical classroom.
  •  Socializing is harder.  Students aren’t just hanging out with each other at lunch time or during passing period.  Some schools plan school field trips and dances where the students can get together.  Some host online clubs and forums for students to interact.  Still, if the students aren’t involved in some other activities with other people, they can feel isolated at home with their laptops.


Final Thoughts:

Overall, I think attending a virtual school is a great option for some students.  Of course, it isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s great that it is an option.  I’ve even heard that business are excited about virtual schools because it teaches students to use programs like Microsoft PowerPoint to do presentations and encourages students to work collaboratively even when they aren’t in the same location as their classmates.

As a teacher, I love that I can work part-time from home and still be with my two children full-time.  I can schedule my office hours and live class sessions for times that Daddy or Grandparents are available and I can do other work when the kids are napping or playing independently next to me.  I don’t have to worry about taking time off when they are ill, nor do I have to worry about bringing illnesses home from work and getting my newborn sick.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect job for a teacher turned stay-at-home mom.

I am not sure if I’ll send my kids to a virtual school, but I certainly won’t rule it out.  I love that it’s another option available to help children succeed in school.

Hougton Mifflin Math Expressions, A Review

Those of you familiar with my blog will know that I am a former K-4 teacher who believes in teaching math from a Constructivist perspective. This review of Houghton Mifflin’s Math Expression is based on what I have seen as a parent with my “teacher glasses on”, so to say. I do not have any association with Houghton Mifflin whatsoever.

As a parent, I have had the opportunity to help my son complete the second grade Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions curriculum in a home-study way last year when he was in Kindergarten. Now my role has been simplified (yeah!) to only helping him with his third grade homework. I have also volunteered in my son’s Kindergarten classroom and helped lead many of the small group Kindergarten activities. This gave me a chance to see how the teacher’s guide was written and laid out. I also volunteered to tutor a Kindergartener through my church a few years back, so I got to witness firsthand how an English Language Learner responded to this program.

In general, I am favorably impressed with Math Expressions, but only because as a teacher I have witnessed, and been forced to use, some really awful math programs in the past. (Anyone familiar with Math Their Way?) Houghton Mifflin seems to be trying to strike a balance between Constructivism and traditional algorithm based approaches. This reminds me of the phonics vs. Whole Language debate that resulted in Balanced Literacy Instruction. Math Expressions encourages children to learn to solve arithmetic problems using multiple strategies, but often spoon-feeds the children what these strategies should be.

Pure Constructivists would be very unhappy with Math Expressions because of the way the program directly tells children how to solve problems. This is also a curriculum that usually insists that children “stack” problems (write them vertically) in order to solve equations. Pure Constructivists can sometimes advocate the opposite, and insist that children write problems horizontally. I personally, think children should be able to write problems however they want. On the other hand, Constructivists would be happy with Math Expressions in that it goes beyond borrowing and carrying, as the only way to solve problems.

As a former Kindergarten teacher, I feel very strongly that the Kindergarten curriculum moves way too slowly. The English Language Learner boy I tutored was capable of a lot more than what Math Expressions was having him do. This is also a horrible program for school districts who use the Alternate Day Kindergarten schedule. There is no way you could cover the whole year’s program and only teach math two days a week. On the plus side, the Kindergarten curriculum did include lots of hands-on games and activities to reinforce conceptual learning.

I think  my son’s school district has now been using Math Expressions for three or four years.  If I recall corectly, they were using Dale Seymour’s Investigations before that.  In the past five years, the district’s standardized math scores have gone up 19%, which does not surprise me.  Math Expressions seems to be a very “teacher proof” program (although I had that expression!). The teacher guide tells you exactly what to do. It is up to the intelligence and intuition of the teacher herself however, to make this program really great. As with any subject, good teaching is still essential with Math Expressions. Although if your child was stuck with a “bum teacher” (another expression I detest!), they would probably be better off with that teacher using Math Expressions, then a lot of other programs out there.

Finally, I have to mention one thing that is currently bugging me about the third grade program. My son’s homework keeps requiring him to write down his answer numerically and then make a proof drawing of his work. The problem is, my son often solves three digit problems in his head. This is really just a minor annoyance with the program. It is after all, important for mathematicians to be able to explain their thinking and show their work. Unfortunately for Bruce, a proof drawing has nothing to do whatsoever with how he is solving the problem!

If you are a parent reading this whose school district has adopted Math Expressions I would say “Relax! It could be a lot worse.” But if you are looking for ways to support math learning at home, please take a look around my blog because I have lots of ideas for you.

Notes in Lunchboxes

 Last week my friend Stephanie mentioned to me how much her son loves reading the notes she writes for him in his lunchbox each day.  Stephanie really puts some thought into what she writes, and uses the notes as a way to sneak in some extra reading practice for her son.  I expressed to her what a great idea that was, and she looked at me kind of funny and said: “You were the one who suggested it to me, Jenny.”  –Oh.  I have totally forgotten that conversation, but I’ll take credit for it anyway!  🙂 

The truth be told, I have been rather sporadic in my lunchbox writing this Fall.  When Bruce was in Kindergarten, I was much better.  Here’s one of my favorite lunchbox notes from last year.  I’m thinking that first grade is time to up my ante.  Spelling words, vocabulary words, jokes in code… Please stay tuned for what I come up with.

Math for Dogs Book

For more information on the how and why of homemmade books, please see here.  For information on teaching your two year old math, please see here.

Who has more blocks?


This is Rosie. 

She has one block.


Now Rosie has six blocks. 

Rosie has more blocks

than Biscuit.


Biscuit has less

blocks than Lucy.


Lucy has the

most blocks.


Now Biscuit has none!

Math for Two Year Olds, Greater Than/Less Than

Here’s another fun game to play with young children that will eventually make using the greater than/less than symbol a breeze when they hit first grade.  I call it “Hungry Guy”, and Jenna(26m) loves it!

This is Hungry Guy.  He likes to eat big numbers.

When Hungry Guy sees two piles of blocks, he always wants to eat the pile with the most blocks.

We played this over and over again this morning, and had a lot of fun together.

Math for Two Year Olds, Comparing Quantities

Here’s an easy way to introduce mathematical language and concepts to children at a very young age; sneak in math during playtime!  Today Jenna(26m) and I played with her doggies and blocks.  She thought we were just having fun.  Actually, I was teaching her the difference between more, less, the most and the least.

Lucy has more blocks than Biscuit.  Biscuit has less blocks than Lucy.

Who has the most blocks?  Lucy!  Who has the least amount of blocks?  Biscuit!

Now it is a little less obvious.  Who has more blocks?  Rosie!  Who has less blocks?  Biscuit!

Now that I’m looking at these pictures it occurs to me that I should make a homemade book out of them.  Hmmmm….  Stay tuned!

Pio Peep: Review

Pio Peep!  Rimas tradicionales en espanol by Alma Flor Ada & Isabel Campoy is a book with CD that we have back from the days when I was trying to teach a two year old Bruce Spanish.  This is a very pretty book, but not one that I would recommend purchasing if you are serious about teaching your children Spanish.

My main problem with this book is the way the authors have chosen to translate the Spanish nursery rhymes into English.  They are very upfront about their decisions, as explained on page 7: “To preserve the charm of the original rhymes, the English version is not a translation but a poetic re-creation.  In some instances, the details are different, but the re-creation remains true to the essence of the original”.  Meaning of course, that you can’t listen to the English versions of the songs and poems as a way to learn what the Spanish versions mean.

On the plus side, the Spanish songs and poems they chose are classics such as  “Cinco lobitos” and “Tengo una muneca”.  But still, I’d save your money on this book and choose something else.

Teach My Two Year Old Spanish?

Notice the question mark.  Any of you familiar with my blog know that I have an unsuccessful, hubris-filled, and expensive history with teaching Spanish to Bruce(6) when he was 2-4 years old.  So now it is with a good deal of hesitancy that I embark on attempting to teach Jenna(26m) Spanish too.  I have had about two years to reflect upon what went wrong with Bruce’s Spanish experience, and these are the lessons I’ve learned:

  • Keep things fun.  I thought I was keeping things fun, but Bruce’s separation anxiety at his uber-expensive Spanish immersion preschool probably had a big impact on his declining enthusiasm for Spanish, even though he enjoyed participating in class once I could pry his arms off my knees and scoot him into the classroom.  For him, Spanish went from a secret language he had with mommy, to something that forced him to be separated from mommy.  No wonder he blamed Spanish.
  •  Spanish is not like piano lessons.  My mom’s a piano teacher, so of course piano lessons were not optional in our household.  I studied piano for about ten years, and also learned to play the organ in college.  I still love to play piano.  My sister stuck with piano for many years too, (under duress), and does not willingly play piano.  But she probably could still sit down a play something if you gave her some music to read.  I thought it would work like this with Spanish.  I could force Bruce to stick with it, and he would learn to love Spanish and thank me later.  But this is not what ended up happening because Bruce doesn’t remember almost any Spanish, even though at one point he was seriously on track to becoming bilingual.
  • Don’t spend a lot of money.  All in all our family spend almost $2,000 trying to teach Bruce Spanish at a young age.  Most of this went to the $900 yearly tuition for his 75 minute weekly Spanish class.  In retrospect, yes I am crazy!  I wish I had put all of that money into Bruce’s 529 instead.  At least then I could blame the market crashes for the money’s disappearance.  🙂

So now the question remains, what to do with Jenna? Should I even bother trying to teach her Spanish?  I think the answer is yes, because each child is dramatically different.  Just because something didn’t work for Bruce doesn’t mean it won’t work for Jenna.  But this time I’m going to apply some sense and simplicity into our program, and keep things as fun as possible.  Here’s my current plan:

  • Child directed.  If Jenna doesn’t want to do any Spanish that day we aren’t doing any, period.
  • Twenty minutes a day.  Or maybe thirty, but certainly no more.
  • The library is my friend.  I’m going to hunt down and put on hold every single Spanish for kids item I can find.  I did this with Bruce too, but hopefully there have been more things published since then.
  • Vme, Muzzy, books, CDs and games.  Not an expensive Spanish class!

Deep breath.  I hope this works.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, by Peter Leithart

I’ve just finished burning the midnight oil to finish reading Fyodor Dostoevsky by Peter Leithart.  It was very unexpectedly, a real page-turner!  I was expecting a dry biography, and instead encountered a mixture pathos, sex, political intrigue, imprisonment, marriage, true love and faith.  Leithart does a fantastic job of telling this story through flashbacks and conversations.  I’m seriously thinking of reading this book over again tomorrow!

On a personal note, the time period of this book overlaps with when my own Russo-German ancestors lived in Russia.  They were not serfs, nobility, or intellectuals, but rather German nationals who lived in their own towns along the Volga River.  In 1874 a lot of them immigrated to America in order to avoid conscription into the Russian army.  Fyodor Dostoevsky does a good job in portraying what life was like for people at many ends of the economic and social strata in Russia during this time.  It also talks about the Western vs. Slavophil philosophical debates going on in the country during that century.  It’s no wonder my own ancestors, not being Russian, wanted to leave.

The other thoughts this book brings to mind is my own shameful ignorance about Russian literature in general.  How could I have not read any Pushkin?  How could I have not read Crime and Punishment?  I am feeling seriously uneducated, but inspired to rectify this situation immediately.

Fyodor Dostoevsky is part of a series of biographies, called “Christian Encounters”.   Don’t let the series title scare you off though, because non-Christians would enjoy reading this book as well.   Hopefully the rest of the authors are as good as Peter Leithart! 

P.S.  I received a copy of this book for free from Booksneeze in exchange for my review.  All thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.

Speak Spanish with Dora & Diego! Vamanos! Let’s Go!: Review

Jenna(26m) and I have been listening to Speak Spanish with Dora & Diego! Vamanos!  Let’s Go! for a few weeks now.  This is a new product in our household, purchased especially for Jenna.  I did not use this with Bruce when he was little and I tried to teach him Spanish.  The Dora and Diego set is created in association with Pimsleur and includes two books, two CDs, and a parent guide.  There are actually four stories in all, because the books each have two stories in them.

We have used this set in several ways so far.  Jenna and I have sat down and read the books together and we have also sat down in front of the CD player and listened to the CD with me helping Jenna point to the pictures in the book.   The easiest (for me) way to use this set is to play the CD in the car and hand the book back to Jenna in her car seat.  I’m not sure how effective this is, but she’s a captive audience in her car seat and doesn’t complain when I turn on the CD!

How effective is this program?   Hmmm….  I wish I could answer that, but I honestly don’t know.  It’s a lot better than Pio Peep, but on par with Play and Learn Spanish, both of which I’ll review later.  It’s definitely worth checking out if your local library has it, but I’m not sure if it was worth purchasing just yet.  I’ll update this review in about six months and let you know!

The Bieroch Book (and my Russo-German past)

This weekend the kids and I made a favorite food from my grandma’s Russo- German side of the family called Bieroch.  My grandma’s father and grandparents were Germans whose ancestors lived along the Volga River in Russia for three generations, but never lost their German heritage. 

The Russo-Germans were invited over to Russia by Catherine the Great to help settle frontier land.  One of the deals Catherine made with them was that they would never have to serve in the Russian army.  In 1874 Tsar Alexander reneged on that promise, and in order to avoid conscription, whole towns of Russo-Germans left Russia for the United States.  Most of them settled in the Midwest where they brought seeds of Winter Wheat with them.  This type of wheat grew really well in the Great Plains, and led to a wheat boom/bubble economy in the Midwest that precipitated the Dust Bowl.  There is a really interesting book about this by Timothy Egan called The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, which I will include a link to at the end of this post.

Although it is never a good idea to generalize an entire population, the Russo-Germans had a reputation for being incredibly hard working, tidy, thrifty, and family oriented.  If you judge by my grandma’s family, they also placed a high value on education and training.  Three of my grandma’s nine siblings graduated from college, and my great-grandpa served on the local school board. 

During World War I and World War II many Russo-Germans were persecuted by their Midwestern neighbors for being of German descent, but this did not stop many of them from fighting bravely in the American army.  My grandma still has letters my great uncle Herman wrote her from the European front where he died.  He is buried in Arlington cemetery. 

Growing up, it was always frustrating to me to meet other kids from German-American backgrounds.  The foods our grandmas cooked were never the same things!  Now I understand that Russo-Germans have their own genre of cooking, including butter-ball soup, bump bread (made from cooked down watermelon rinds), and bieroch.

Nobody in my family likes butter-ball soup, and I’m not about to cook down watermelons, thank you very much.  But bieroch is something we all enjoy!  Usually it takes a lot of work to make, but I have developed a “cheaters version” using the crock-pot and bread machine, that is actually pretty easy.  This weekend the kids and I a big batch of bieroch together, and put about four dinners worth away in the freezer after feasting on it Saturday night.

Of course, me being me I’ve got to make a homemade book about our Bieroch experience for Jenna(26m)!  (For more information on the how and why of homemade books please see here.) 

I invite you to give bieroch making a try.  It’s really yummy and freezes well.  The filling includes hamburger, sausage, onions, cabbage, Worchester sauce and any spice you like.  For the dough, just use your favorite dinner roll recipe. Let them rise for 45 minutes after you form them, then bake at 375 for about 20-25 minutes.  (There is an official recipe at the top of this post in the hyperlink for Bieroch.)

The Bieroch Book


Jenna helped Mommy

make bieroch.


Mommy cooked meat, cabbage,

onions and spices in the crock pot.


The bieroch filling cooked

for a long time.


Jenna helped make the

dough in the bread machine.


Mommy rolled out the dough.


Bruce helped fill the bieroch.


This is how you wrap up bieroch.


Soon the bieroch were

ready for the oven.


Then the bieroch was

ready to eat!

Cooking with Two Year Olds

I know I sound like a broken record, but cooking with your children is one of the best ways to teach them math.  Jenna(26m) and I made brownies together and practiced counting and adding. 

We also reviewed bigger vs smaller and more vs less.  My goal with her is to do at least one cooking project each week.  This week we made two things; brownies and homemade bread.  I don’t have any pictures of the bread, but it was really easy thanks to our bread machine!

Yoga Pretzels Review

 I’ve been meaning to blog about our “Yoga Pretzels” deck for a while now.  I bought this for Bruce when he was two hoping that Yoga would help him calm down.  That didn’t exactly work out according to plan, but both Bruce and Jenna have loved these cards as a fun activity to do.  I’m not sharing identifying pictures of my kids anymore, but boy do I have some cute ones of them doing “Double Dog” and “Lizard on a Rock” together!

The cards are all color coded so that if you were really serious about it you could organize a Yoga session into the proper order of  strength, balance postures, stretches, relaxation exercises etc.  That has never worked out in our household at all however. 

Generally what happens for us right now is that Jenna(26m) sees the cards on the shelf and thinks: Gee, I want to do Yoga!  Then she dumps all of the cards out onto the floor.  Jenna then picks the first three cards she spots and does the poses.  Five minutes later, the cards are still lying on the living room floor and my daughter is off to the next activity.  Of course, if my husband or I are there with her she will do card after card for almost twenty minutes.  Sometimes she will even help put the cards away!  This in itself takes about five minutes, with her “helping”.

I’d say this deck would work for kids ages 2-8.  So if you are starting to think about future Christmas or Hanukah presents for your kids, this would be a good pick.  There is also a book that goes with it called My Daddy is a Pretzel.  We enjoyed checking it out from our local library. I don’t think it is as useful as the cards though.


Jenna(26m) is really getting in to “helping” write the Morning Message these days.  We wrote this out together before taking off for our first Kindermusik class.  I’m going to give it a month or so, and then write a full review of what I think of ABC Music and Me.  (Just to be clear, I have no affiliation with Kindermusik whatsoever.)

Jenna really loves music, my mom’s family is gifted musically, and I had heard such great things about Kindermusik that I decided to sign us up for the fall session even though it is so expensive.  After just one class I think it is enjoyable for parents, fun for kids, but outrageously over-priced.  But we haven’t received our supplies yet.  Maybe they will substantial enough to change my mind about the cost?   

If you have your own Kindermusik experience to report on, feel free to comment!